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Would-be critic slams “Django Unchained”, despite having never seen it

Is Tavis Smiley some kind of home-grown Third World theocrat? Who else has the chutzpah to hurl furious denouncements at a piece of art they haven’t even seen, other than Iranian Mullahs?

You may be asking — who is Tavis Smiley, and why should I care? Smiley is a Mississippi-born, Los Angeles-based African American talk show host, author, liberal political commentator, entrepreneur, advocate and philanthropist who has had his own shows on BET, NPR and PBS. He’s part of the commentariat, a talking head.

Image courtesy Center For American Progress Action Fund:
Tavis Smiley, movie critic of a movie he hasn’t even seen

You should care because Smiley has joined Spike Lee in raging against Quintin Tarantino’s excellent new movie Django Unchained — without having even seen it. Smiley gravely intones that,

"I’m troubled that Hollywood won’t get serious about making an authentic film about the holocaust of slavery but they will greenlight a spoof about slavery, and it’s as if this spoof about slavery somehow makes slavery a bit easier to swallow."

Before going on to assert that,

There are all kinds of questions being raised on the Internet about whether Tarantino would do a spoof about the Holocaust.”

Yeah, because Tarantino’s very last movie before this one — Inglorious Basterds — wasn’t a WWII Jewish revenge ‘spoof’? Are you freaking kidding me?

Django Unchained is not even a ‘spoof’ as Smiley asserts, although it is very funny, but it is much, much more uncomfortable to watch than Spielberg’s Lincoln, a movie set in the same time period, about the same subject.

Image courtesy Movie Web:

Django makes slavery “a bit easier to swallow”? If that’s what he thinks then Smiley just set a new Olympic world record in the high jump of being wrong.

Django does not make slavery easy to swallow in any way, shape or form. On the contrary it is uncomfortable to watch precisely because it gives the viewer a very visceral sense of the sickening, terrifying daily life for African Americans subjugated to this monstrous institution. In Lincoln, which Smiley approves of as “a wonderful film” (and I also enjoyed, but for different reasons), black people are either house staff or low level soldiers; white people are the stars, and they engage in lengthy debates about slavery. Very little else happens, certainly not to any black people.

Perhaps this is why Smiley likes it, because there’s nothing to offend his delicate Christian sensibilities. In regards to Django by contrast,

Every black person I’ve spoken to, who has seen the film, has had some level of discomfort seeing it­­—but they all justify it by saying, “Well, at least we win in the end.””

I have news for you Smiley: everyone who watches that film, no matter what color their skin, will have “some level of discomfort seeing it”, but also a sense of triumph at the end. It’s a highly provocative piece of film-making. But one thing it is most assuredly not is a documentary, apparently the entire basis for Smiley’s criticisms. As Samuel L Jackson explains, Django is a Blaxploitation Western: “It’s entertainment. It’s an adventure love story. If you like love stories and you like adventure, you’ll like “Django.”“ 

Image courtesy Movie Web:

Smiley goes on to whine, “is nothing sacred?” (to which the correct answer in a liberal democracy with freedom of speech is, “No”), before piously intoning that for black actors, he “gave up long ago on expecting [them] to make tough choices and right decisions consistently.” I’m sure I don’t need to point out at this juncture what a self-righteous douche Smiley is being, but I will anyway.

Smiley also feels it necessary to clutch his pearls and denounce Django’s liberal use of the word “Nigger”, as if people in a film about slavery set in the late 1850’s ever used any other word to describe African Americans. The mental handicap in Smiley’s reaction to this is at a level where I’m surprised his brain is still capable of regulating the breathing action.

I watched Django in a packed theater in Manhattan that was comprised of about 50/50 white people and black people, and we all grimaced together at some of the horrific abuse, and cheered together at the humor and triumph of the black guy kicking some truly vile white people’s asses. We were all very much entertained. Yes it’s offensive. It’s supposed to be offensive. America has an extremely violent and offensive past, and in my opinion Tarantino has done far more to advance America’s conversation about slavery and race with Django than Spielberg did with Lincoln.

At its best, fiction can point us to more profound truths about the human experience than non-fiction. Regardless of Django’s historical authenticity, it is one of those pieces of fiction, like the stunning beach landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, that gives you a hyper ‘real’ experience of what it must have felt like to be there.

Django Unchained features a black hero who prevails because he is smarter, tougher, and more talented than his white foes, and it is a very funny, thrilling, terrifying, profoundly disturbing, highly entertaining piece of cinema. I’d put it up there as one of, if not the best film of 2012. But don’t take my word for it, and definitely don’t be like Tavis Smiley, who starts off his profoundly fatuous, yet in-depth sermon on the movie by proclaiming “I refuse to see it. I’m not going to pay to see it.”

Go see it for yourself before you make up your own mind.

Image courtesy Movie Web:

Filed under Quentin Tarantino Tavis Smiley race relations US slavery Django Unchained Lincoln

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